EU plans for member states to accept 160,000 new asylum seekers represent a “drop in the ocean” in the scale of the crisis, Germany’s vice-chancellor says, BBC reports. Sigmar Gabriel said 450,000 people had arrived in Germany so far this year, with 37,000 in the first eight days of September. Tens of thousands, mainly Syrians, have pushed north in recent weeks. Serbian TV says a record 5,000 migrants have arrived at the border with Hungary in the past 24 hours.
The Hungarian army earlier started military exercises to prepare for a possible future role in guarding the border and stem the flow of people – a move criticised by human rights groups. Meanwhile, Austria’s government said 5,700 people had crossed over from Hungary in recent hours. National train operator OeBB temporarily suspended services from Hungary because of the increasing numbers and the risks of overcrowding.
On Wednesday European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced plans to distribute 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary among member states via binding quotas. This would be on top of a proposal in May to share 40,000 refugees from just Greece and Italy. Speaking in the German parliament on Thursday, Mr Gabriel described the plans as “a first step, if one wants to be polite”.
“Or you could call it a drop in the ocean,” he added. Thousands of migrants, many of them fleeing conflicts in countries such as Syria and Libya, continue to make the dangerous journey to Europe’s shores across the Mediterranean. Another group of 2,500 migrants boarded a ferry hired by the Greek government early on Thursday to transport them from the island of Lesbos to the mainland.
The El Venizelos once carried tourists on the leisure routes of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. That was before the wars in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan sent tens of thousands of people in the direction of Europe. I am on board the Venizelos with 2,500 refugees. They include many families with young children who crossed from Turkey in rubber boats and spent several days queuing for the ship in the stifling heat.
It was the quiet of the waiting crowds this morning that was most striking. They filed aboard in orderly lines – the sick and the elderly going first – and then lay down wherever they could. Many were asleep within minutes. As the dawn came up, scattered groups had gathered along the ship’s railing. I met an artist from Aleppo, Givara Hesoo, who was heading for Germany with his wife and three children.
“Everything is lost,” he said. When I asked him about his family’s future he replied: “We cannot talk of a future yet.” The European parliament backed Mr Juncker’s plans on Thursday and they will now have to get the go-ahead from member states. On Thursday German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a home for refugees in Berlin. Speaking afterwards she said she hoped newcomers would integrate with the help of their children learning German in school.
Meanwhile, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Germany had registered some 450,000 migrants already this year, including 105,000 in August and 37,000 in the first eight days of September. Earlier the Irish government announced it would take in 4,000 refugees – a figure that includes 1,120 people Ireland had already agreed to receive. The UK, Ireland and Denmark can choose whether to take part in the EU’s quota scheme.
The UK government, which is not part of the scheme, has said it will resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps surrounding Syria by 2020.